This, from The New England Journal of Medicine, sounds familiar:
This is the story line for most headline-grabbing illnesses—HIV, Ebola virus, SARS, typhoid. These diseases capture our imagination and ignite our fears in ways that more prosaic illnesses do not. These dramatic stakes lend themselves quite naturally to thriller books and movies; Dustin Hoffman hasn’t starred in any blockbusters about emphysema or dysentery.
When the inoculum of dramatic illness is first introduced into society, the public psyche rapidly becomes infected. Almost like an IgE-mediated histamine release, there is an immediate flooding of fear, even if the illness—like Ebola—is infinitely less likely to cause death than, say, a run-in with the Second Avenue bus. This immediate fear of the unknown was what had all my patients demanding the as-yet-unproduced H1N1 vaccine last spring.
As the novel disease establishes itself within society, a certain amount of emotional tolerance is created. H1N1 infection waxed and waned over the summer, and my patients grew less anxious. There was, of course, no medical basis for this decreased vigilance. Unusual risk groups and atypical seasonality should, in fact, have raised concern. By late summer, the perceived mysteriousness of H1N1 had receded, and the number of messages on my clinic phone followed suit.
But emotional epidemiology does not remain static. As autumn rolled around, I sensed a peeved expectation from my patients that this swine flu problem should have been solved already. The fact that it wasn’t “solved,” that the medical profession seemed somehow to be dithering, created an uneasy void. Not knowing whether to succumb to panic or to indifference, patients instead grew suspicious.
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